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July 24, 2016 / emmanintheworld


If there’s one thing that is present in any diverse country, it is a Chinatown. The gate that symbolizes the friendship between the local Chinese community and the host citizens, Buddhist temples which attract both the religious and the curious, and hawkers selling cheap (and possibly unsanitary) street food are familiar sights to most people all over the world.

This is why it comes as no surprise that the different Chinatowns will be compared. Which Chinatown sells the cheapest branded bags? Which one has the must-visit restaurants? Which one has the best temples? And of course, which one is the ‘most Chinese’ of them all?

This is where Manila’s Chinatown comes in.

Filipinos know that Binondo, despite being the oldest Chinatown in the world, is not the most traditional of all Chinatowns. In fact, it’s full of contradictions. Just walk along Ongpin Street and you’ll hear Filipino tricycle drivers shouting at each other. Ube-colored firetrucks, possibly the best representation of Binondo itself, parked beside kalesas, a throwback to the Spanish occupation of the Philippines. Walk a few meters from one of the Chinatown gates and you’ll see Binondo Church, a Dominican church which also commemorates the first Filipino saint. These contradictions have a huge effect on the perception of Binondo as a legitimate Chinatown.

A few years ago, my Sociology and Anthropology professor organized a ‘City Senses Tour’ in Chinatown. One of the most common observations from the class was that exploring the place didn’t feel like going to China. Unlike other Chinatowns, any attempt to immerse in the Chinese culture would be hampered by distinctly Filipino influences. It also didn’t feel like any other Chinatown since the Buddhist temples are hidden instead of showed off as a point of attraction. In fact, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in the country, Guan Sheng Fu Zi Temple, is inside a maze of buildings and back alleys.

The initial purpose of enclaves is to preserve and showcase the practices and values of a specific community. In that respect, Manila’s Chinatown is failing. But it is successful in something else: showing how culture evolves without losing its core values.

Perhaps, a perfect example for this would be the ube hopia of Eng Bee Tin. This pastry catapulted the third-generation family business into nationwide fame because it improved on the Chinese delicacy, using the Filipino ube, without losing its essence.

The beauty of Binondo is that it adapts. It doesn’t let itself be restricted by being a traditional Chinatown and is more than willing to look outside the box for ideas. In this lens, the constradictions of Binondo reinforces the fact that the district is alive and evolving.

Although Binondo is not the traditional Chinatown, it’s one of the ‘most Chinese’ in the sense that it knows how to adapt and keep evolving in this world.

P.S. One of the things that people often forget about Binondo is that it existed even before a Fililpino culture and identity was formed. It’s not just a ‘country within a country’ like other Chinatowns. Ours is a witness to Manila’s defining moments: from the Spanish occupation to post-World War II reconstruction. It’s possible that Ongpin Street is as integral to our nation’s history as EDSA itself.




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